Rewriting Poe: Mat Johnson’s Pym

Posted by Glennis Byron on January 05, 2011 in News tagged with , ,

Continuing on with what seems to be something of a polar strand on this website, another classic is getting the updating treatment. Mat Johnson’s Pym will be published in March 2011.

Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), concerns the experiences of a young stowaway on a New England whaling ship. Pym shares his adventures with another sailer, Dirk Peters, described as the ‘son of an Indian squaw…and a fur trader’. The novel has frequently been accused of racism, and Toni Morrison, in Playing in the Dark, has referred specifically to Pym in claiming that no early American writer is as important to the concept of American Africanism than Poe.

In Mat Johnson’s Pym, Chris Jaynes, a literature professor, discovers the ‘The True and Interesting Narrative of Dirk Peters. Coloured Man. As Written by Himself’. In order to authenticate the manuscript he organizes an expedition which follows Peters and Pym’s route to the Antarctic. In particular Jaynes seeks Tsalal, the island of utter blackness that Poe describes with such horror, and the place which Jaynes imagines as the last bastion of the African diaspora.

Pym is not in itself gothic, but a mixture of satire and social criticism. The brief review on Publishers Weekly concludes that the book ‘is caustically hilarious as it offers a memorable take on America’s “racial pathology” and “the whole ugly story of our world.”‘

There have been many Poe updatings include  Matthew Pearl’s The Poe Shadow (2002), Jonathan Fuqua’s In the Shadow of Edgar Allan Poe (2003) Linda Fairstein’s Entombed (2006), and Louis Bayard’s The Pale Blue Eye (2006). Most updatings, however, are crime thrillers and not gothic, and the majority are concerned with rewriting Poe himself rather than his works.

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